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Fistfuls of Dollars in Kabul Print
By ROSIE DIMANNO - May 22, 2007

KABUL: “In this raucous capital, following the money inevitably leads to the currency bazaar.

It is the Bay St. of Afghanistan, hard by a throbbing traffic circle, the cacophony of Pul-e-Omomi.

Off in the near distance, there's even a gleaming building housing the country's central bank branch. Perhaps the Taliban keeps its money there. Or maybe the international community's billions in donations pass through its computerized accounts, stacked neatly in highly secure underground vaults.

But ordinary Afghans don't use the place. Handing over one's hard-earned cash to unfamiliar tellers in neckties is a radical concept, completely foreign to the atavistic instinct to stash and secrete, keep on one's persons, in one's house, under the bed, squeezed beneath a floor plank, buried in the garden.
But even Afghans occasionally need financial services that would normally fall to monetary institutions – most often the necessity to exchange foreign funds, U.S. dollars (the country is awash in those) and rupees and dinars for the national currency. So they come here, to the currency market, and avail themselves of the services offered by money changers.

A strange breed, they are rather like carny men or casino pit bosses, congregating in clots atop scrap heaps or sitting at tables heaped with cash, noisily and with flourish tending to the world-all-over business of cash on the dollar. Fifty-two Afghanis to the U.S. dollar is the standard rate and, surprisingly – tellingly – that rate hasn't changed for many months.

Two Afghanis on that dollar is the standard money-changer's fee, a slim profit, acceptable even in a society where Islamic religious proscriptions render interest and usury sinful.

Double-fisted, the money changers wave scrip in the air, fingers rapidly and dexterously riffling banknotes greasy and dog-eared from circulation.

"No bank lineups!" laughs Naj Muddin, one of the pavement entrepreneurs.

An old lady reaches deep into the mysterious nether regions of her burqa, pulling out a tightly rolled wad of green, carefully counting aloud the colourful Afghanis she receives in return. Endlessly, those Afghans who deal most often in foreign funds – fixers for journalists, tradesmen employed by Westerners – dash into this brokerage arena to make their transactions.

Taxis stop regularly, drivers thrusting bills through the front window and jerking back into traffic, the seamless exchange conducted in moments. Contrary to custom in this part of the globe, there is never any bartering. Everybody knows the price is fixed and non-negotiable. That's the whole point.

Muddin, 40, has been a money changer for only two years, having arrived in Kabul from his village 165 kilometres to the north in search of employment. "I was with the Taliban, in the beginning. Really, there wasn't much choice. But then I turned in my gun to the (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and tried to find a job. There was nothing, so I started doing this."

He sounds more apologetic for being a money changer than having been a Taliban. It is not entirely a seemly profession – even in Kabul, there is awareness that money changers were cast out of the Jerusalem temple in the Bible – yet it is vital to Afghan society. When the central bank collapsed in the civil war of the '90s, these were the men who allowed the ravaged economy to continue functioning, however haphazardly.

"If the Afghani stays stable, then Afghanistan is stable," says Muddin. "But our government can't make sure of this by itself. That's why we need the international community with us. Obviously, they can't leave. But we are getting tired of the promises about reconstruction. For five years, it's been promises, promises, promises."

Muddin, like everybody else, is well aware of the Taliban's resurgence, its promises of destabilizing the government and declarations to seize power anew by driving coalition troops out. He waves off the threat with a fistful of dollars. "I think this is mostly propaganda."

Another money changer, Ajmal Najibi, 23, relates how he was in a Kabul restaurant recently, watching TV, when a man sat next to him. "He told me to close my eyes, not to watch the TV. Then he told me to stop cutting my beard because that was forbidden.

"He was Taliban. He said that there were more than 6,000 suicide bombers who had come to Afghanistan this spring, ready to die. I looked around for a policeman, I wanted to tell someone. But there was nobody there and then the man disappeared."

Najibi shrugs his shoulders. "They are trying to scare us."

Having spent his adolescence in Kabul, when it was under siege by battling militias, Najibi says he doesn't scare easily anymore. Life is so much calmer now and he no longer exists in a state of dread.

Yet even in those days, the money changers endured as a fixture in the city.

"It's better than having a shop," he says. "Here, I can just work on the street and the business comes to me."

And Najibi, despite the banknotes spilling out of his pockets, has never been robbed.

Which is more than can be said for the banks.
 
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